What do you do?
I am an educator, musician, visual artist, filmmaker, writer, mentor and advocate for youth in the Juvenile Justice system. I have been working with youth in state’s custody for the past 18 years. The last 8 of those have been as a mentor and administrator at Spy Hop Productions. Since 1999, Spy Hop has been using mentorship in digital media production as a tool of empowerment, education and engagement of young people, ages 13 to 20. The work created at Spy Hop is student-driven and mentored by teaching artists who are professionals in their fields. Students enter Spy Hop with an interest in media and technology and leave with a measurable increase in the skills and dispositions necessary to be critical creators and consumers of media. I was hired by Spy Hop to launch Sending Messages, the only youth-produced podcast created by young offenders in incarceration facilities, in the country.
I have always believed that high-risk youth need an outlet to communicate and express themselves. Digital Media has the ability to give these teenagers access to connect with and educate an audience that rarely hears from them. The programs that I oversee are geared to interject and normalize the digital arts into the youth corrections and foster care system, as a way to empower these young people to share their stories and experience the transformative power of finding a voice through the arts. I envision a day where young people are using technology to help them talk about their struggles and encourage greater understanding with the public is common practice in these facilities.
Tell me about your latest work or project in media literacy.
Spy Hop is one of six global Creative Catalyst partners in Adobe’s Project 1324 youth media platform. We have been facilitating our student’s participation in projects such as the ‘Move The Dial’ initiative where young people create multimedia work around gender issues and take a critical look at how roles and norms are created by popular culture. The pieces are then shared to the Project 1324 website where they can be shared with other participants from around the world. Giving our students a platform to tell their stories in a space where other young people will hear it is a powerful tool.
We are also expanding a statewide program for Elementary and Junior High school students demystifying the creative process in video game design and electronic music production. It breaks the process down into small steps that are easy to understand, using software that is accessible to students online. At Spy Hop, we value low barriers for participation and exploration and often this means giving students ‘permission’ to be curious and creative and gives them a feeling that they have something worth offering.
Why is media literacy important to you?
When Henry Jenkins spoke about participatory cultures back in 2009, we were inspired to know that giving young people the means to create media in a space where their voices were valued and the process could be mentored by professional artists in those fields would be deeply impactful. We had no idea what the media landscape almost ten years later would look like. Due to our connectivity and social media networks we are all media makers with opinions, platforms, and an audience. Trying to navigate that space and finding a signal in the noise can be very challenging for young people. Many of the online platforms that are available for sharing work and getting feedback can be counterproductive and at times, even toxic. It makes the work that we do at Spy Hop all the more important.
Sharing and context are two of the most powerful keystones in Spy Hop’s curriculum. It is how the effectiveness of a piece of work is determined, as well as how we ascribe meaning to that work. When a young person creates a piece of media, they become a participant. It changes the way that they see the media landscape. They become more critical of the messages they are absorbing and how those messages alter their point of view. It’s a way to tackle the concept of what the responsibility of being a media maker looks like. Many times young people in our programs want to add lurid elements to evoke emotion or to shock their audience because that is what they have learned from the media that they have consumed. Discussing the relevance of what kind of message you are putting out into the world is such an empowering and catalytic conversation to have with young people. Discussing messaging and audience is what gives students perspective on what it means to create art and cultivate a vision.
What are you most excited about in the media literacy field?
I have found that tackling the complex field of media literacy with young people is most effectively done through the production process of new original work. This gives the participants the opportunity to discover the power of communication and intent. In the case of Spy Hop’s most vulnerable students, incarcerated youth, the messaging that many of them absorb to represent their worldview is one that glorifies violence and drug use. Giving these students an opportunity to talk about their own experiences while challenging the notion of exploitation and telling ‘war stories’make these students confront what the power of telling a true story means and how catharsis through art has worth.
To the youth that we work with, a piece of media has an intrinsic value placed on it when it is shared. I had a student tell me once that they were excited that we were going to post their video on YouTube because that meant that it would be ‘real’. In the case of Sending Messages, the fact that the work will see the light of day and be heard by a larger audience (in particular an audience who is unfamiliar with the challenges that these young people have faced) forces the students to think about their experiences in a larger, more universal way. It changes the context for them, and in return gives them new light and new opportunities to alter what those narratives might be, empowering them through this new knowledge. We have found that these experiences give our students tools to observe the information around them with a more critical eye and new insights into the ways that their voices are heard.
Why did you become a NAMLE member, what benefits do you see to membership, and how will it support your work?
We at Spy Hop value the importance of media literacy in our curriculum. Teaching our students how to recognize the ways messaging works to influence an audience has always been part of our mission. Last year my colleague Gabriella Huggins and I presented the Sending Messages program at the NAMLE conference in Chicago regarding media & digital literacy work with underserved communities. It was a fantastic experience in which we met many wonderful people who have been valuable resources for the work that we do. I am consistently impressed by the varied knowledge of so many professionals who are doing such diverse and inspirational work and am honored to be a partner in this important endeavor.